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24 March 2014

Discipleship: freedom, joy and abundant life

If I were to give a broad brush view of discipleship it would be to say that the essence of Christian discipleship is 'taking the words of Jesus and putting them into practice'. There is an unmistakable emphasis on obedience in the New Testament but this obedience is portrayed as rooted in passionate devotion to the saviour: one that is birthed out of love. This then leads to freedom, love for others, strength, rootedness, joy, peace, life etc. Given this as the backdrop, the issues that I see as pressing for those who disciple others in the Christian life in our contemporary society are the concepts of dying to self through self-control, and the regulating of desire.

The more that my husband and I pastor young people, the more I think these are crucial issues for a society that is immersed in and overwhelmed by consumerism and the reality of instant gratification – with 'instant' having a meaning that those of us who were not brought up with the internet are still not entirely familiar with.

People are coming into our churches from a culture where the availability of drugs, porn, gaming, sex, and just things is a completely acceptable part of everyday life, and where desires (or what John calls the "cravings of the sinful man") run unbridled, and are fulfilled, satiated, and fuelled without question. The very idea of denying the self, self-control, and restraint in this context is going to be completely counter-cultural. So what kind of programmes, systems, and theology will confront and subvert this way of life?

Whatever our 'programmes' look like I would include three elements that I would see as essential:

A transparent and honest community. Unless it is normal in our communities to be honest with someone about the cravings of our sinful nature and to confess our weaknesses and our struggles with a view to change, then we will not even be able to begin the journey of discipleship. If it is possible to dissemble (to deliberately mask our motives and behaviour) for any length of time with the people we are living and worshipping with, then we are not yet in fully Christ-like communities. Needless to say I would put the onus on the leaders of communities to set the tone for this, to be honest about their own weaknesses, and to create a culture in church where people can be real with one another.

Spiritual disciplines. Dallas Willard is brilliant on the purpose of the spiritual disciplines, and the interplay of grace and effort that prevents us from becoming either legalists on the one hand, or libertines on the other. He categorises the disciplines into disciplines of abstinence and disciplines of engagement: worship, study, prayer, feasting, fasting, silence, solitude and others. All are essential in relation to dying to ourselves, self-control and the managing of desire. One of the disciplines that has struck us in particular in this regard is the memorisation of scripture. The memorisation and the ability to recite scripture rather than just the reading or hearing of scripture has a particular power. I have heard many testimonies now that this is a powerful tool for the renewing of the mind, and so I would encourage this in particular.

The holy spirit as a means of transformation. Any discipleship programme should also have at its heart an expectation of the powerful work of the spirit in healing the wounds and the damage of the past, and delivering and cleansing us of demonic and oppressive forces. This is essential to breaking destructive patterns, which are part of everyone's lives. We should also acknowledge and welcome the boundary-breaking reality of spiritual gifts which, when exercised in love, introduce us to a whole new way of life on earth. Seeing God work in power around us excites in us the incentive and hope for change, and redirects passions and desires to the vibrant life of the kingdom.

Discipleship programmes in our society, whatever shape they take, must have in them the means of rewiring the brain and recalibrating the heart. When this happens our desires and our wills are brought happily and with great relief into line with the will of God. They are not extinguished but brought alive in life-giving ways. This is beyond our natural capacities, and can only be a work of the son and the spirit, but occurs in our yielding and our response to God's overtures to us.

Discipleship begins by being captivated by Jesus the saviour, and responding to the call to follow him. This relationship re-creates the human being, forming us as new creations. The call to discipleship is living out the reality of this salvation. The three elements of the work of the spirit and the spiritual disciplines, in the context of a transparent, loving, and honest community, can be very effective in the formation of disciples. This gives us a means of achieving the call to die to ourselves, to exercise self-control on a daily basis, and to regulate and channel desire so that it comes into line with the will and desires of God for us. The promise of God is that this will lead us to freedom, joy, and abundant life.

Dr Lucy Peppiatt is the principal of Westminster Theological Centre and author of The Disciple: On Becoming Truly Human


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